Thursday, 8 May 2014

Stupidity, and a mind full of Hay

The Hay Festival is the largest literary festival on Earth, which may make it the largest anything that is in Wales. The Festival is held in the town of Hay-on-Wye, close to the English border, which is both small enough and book-loving enough to have earned the distinction of being the town with the largest number of second-hand bookstores per population in the world. (This was true even back when other towns did actually have second-hand bookstores.) Ok, so that's another "largest" for Wales, but I suspect we can lump it in with the first. And another related extreme statistic for you: the attendees of the Hay Festival are invariably made up of the largest proportion I have ever seen of men wearing scarves.

I have been to the Hay Festival only once, and my two immediate reactions after listening to the literary luminaries were, (1) "Wow", and (2) "I wish I could do that!" I have the second reaction whenever I'm impressed, and usually nothing comes of it: every time I go to the movies, every time I go to a rock concert, or the time I stayed at that hotel on the Amalfi Coast where the proprietor was continuously overjoyed and sang while he worked. But this time it's different. The Festival also includes a series of lectures from Cardiff University academics, which occurs every year, and fulfils an important mission, namely to "Provide Cardiff academics with the opportunity to realise their ambition to speak at the Hay Festival." This year the series includes a discussion between my good self and Professor Harry Collins. The reason that these two characters will be present is simple. Harry Collins is a distinguished social scientist who has done pioneering work on the sociology of scientific knowledge, and has just released a new book on scientific expertise. I, as I've said, want to talk at the Hay Festival.

I have been preparing for this grand event by trying to carefully read Harry's book in my spare time. Unfortunately, I also write this blog in my spare time, and this week I got unusually distracted by some of the comments on my previous post, which lead me to gaze for far too long down into the murky underworld of climate-change scepticism.

It reminded me of something I heard about back when I was a graduate student. I had a good friend who had previously worked in Italy. On one of the many occasions when we were complaining about the vast abundance of morons in the world, he told me about a famous old Italian economist who had devised and written up a brilliant set of four "laws of stupidity". This precious document existed only in Italian, and no English translation existed, and even if it did, my friend assured me, it could never match the playful witty brilliance of the original. Nonetheless, he kindly attempted a basic translation, just to give me the idea.

The laws of stupidity were formulated with a wonderful circularity that made them simultaneously self-contradictory, and obviously correct. The first law was that, whatever your estimate of the proportion of stupid people in a group, it is always larger. Another law noted that the proportion of stupid people is the same in every group, whether they are bricklayers, bankers, or Nobel laureates.

Both of these statements are counter-intuitive, but so is every other good scientific theory. When you think hard about them, they start to make sense. Another law encapsulated the definition of a stupid person, which is anyone who causes harm to others, while deriving no benefit for themselves -- in fact, they usually harm themselves as well. You can see why the seething sewers of anti-climate-change literature brought this all back to mind.

But I really should try to return my attention to the Hay Festival.

My previous visit was in 2012, and I'll never forget it. Among the great talks I attended, one was by the Nobel-prize winner and co-discoverer of DNA, James Watson, oddly "in conversation" with the novelist Ian McEwan. The accompaniment of McEwan might not seem so odd to you, since it would be natural at a literary festival to pair a scientist with a literary personality who has also written on scientific themes. Yes, that would seem natural, if that had been the reasoning. But as the talk progressed, from Watson's fascinating story and on into the discussion, it was possible that McEwan's job was in fact very different: he was there to whisk Watson from the stage, should he start raving. In the circumstances, a hired heavy from one of the local pubs might have been more appropriate.

I knew that Watson had got himself into hot water a few years previously, by making statements that included genetics and Africans in inflammatory combinations, but I had assumed that (a) this was merely an unfortunate faux pas, and (b) he would be a hell of a lot more careful in future. I don't know much about (a), but I can safely say that (b) had not come to pass. When asked about Rosalind Franklin, who many have claimed deserved equal credit for the DNA discovery, he graciously consented to imply that she was delusional. When asked about ethical issues in genetic research, he delivered his blunt assessment of ethical philosophers, and added what he thought was the rhetorical question, "What's wrong if we make all the girls pretty girls?" There were moments when the conviction in his statements worked, and words like "outspoken" and "cantankerous" floated affectionately through my mind. But less complimentary words floated through my mind, too. The other things that floated through my mind, perhaps entirely coincidentally, were, once again, those good old laws of stupidity.

I also noted, in case you were wondering, that Ian McEwan did not at any point during the talk take several steps back and launch at Watson in a running tackle. Either he was too much the gentleman, or he pulled a muscle in training.

With all these distractions in my mind, this week I tried to track down the laws of stupidity, and discovered a curious twist to the story. Their author, Carlo Cipolla, was an Italian economist who worked at Berkeley. In 1976 he wrote a short essay on his laws of stupidity, in English, of which only about a hundred copies were published privately for a group of friends. Its fame spread, and there was demand for a translation into his native Italian. He resisted, with precisely the reverse argument of my old friend: their "Swiftian wit" could only be appreciated in English. But in 1988 he finally relented. The Italian publication was a roaring success, and the essay was subsequently translated into all of the world's major languages. But not, ironically enough, into English. In was only in 2011, eleven years after its author's death, and 35 years after its composition, that the original essay was finally officially published. If you wish you can interpret that as a deep cosmic statement on the veracity of the laws themselves, along with the fact that the publishers hoped to make a profit from a short essay that is now freely available on the internet.

I also went back and listened to the audio of Watson's talk. In retrospect, 97% of what he said was insightful, interesting, valuable, and a privilege to hear. There are plenty of stupid people in the world, but also intelligent people who occasionally do or say stupid things. On May 23 I have my chance to be one of them. 

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